Internet: the new essential utility?

David Bright moved to Brown County about 15 years ago. Most of that time, he was commuting an hour each way to Indianapolis to work for an insurance company.

About seven years ago, employees were told they could take their work home with them, permanently. They could telecommute — work online from home.

But the offer wasn’t for everyone. The company had minimum Internet connection requirements.

“They specifically said they do not want satellite unless there’s absolutely no other option,” Bright said.

So, Bright used DSL, which works over normal phone lines and doesn’t get weather interference, like satellite can.

The fastest speed he could get at the time allowed 3 megabits-per-second download speed from the Internet to the computer, and 512 kilobits-per-second upload speed, from the computer to the Internet.

“It was barely enough,” Bright said.

Like taking a shower and running a washing machine at the same time, anyone else using the Internet at home could interrupt file transfers and slow his work.

Now, Bright uses a cellular hotspot to work from his home north of Fruitdale. It is faster than his old DSL connection.

It can cost more than $200 per month during his busiest months.

But it’s worth it to live in Brown County and not spend two hours on the road every workday, he said.

Lay of the land

As local leaders look to build Brown County’s economy, telecommuters and Internet-based home businesses are often mentioned for their potential to be high income earners with low environmental impact.However, in Brown County, Internet options are limited outside of Nashville and the State Road 46 corridor.Some areas have DSL, which runs over phone lines. New technologies promise DSL speeds approaching the speed of fiber optic Internet, but outside of high-population areas, their speed is more likely to match what Bright encountered.

Residents who have a cellphone signal at home may do what Bright is doing: Connect via a wireless hotspot. Bright decided that the only feasible option for a connection to handle his demands was to use the cellphone network, plus get a $400 signal booster for his house.

Many people simply have no Internet. Bright said he has friends who make a trip to town just to check their email.

Folks who live along the schools’ Internet line route may have another option: fiber optics.

The Mainstream Fiber network that connects the county’s schools follows state roads 135 and 46 from Van Buren Elementary to the Nashville schools campus, then takes Greasy Creek, Bear Wallow and Gatesville roads and State Road 45 to connect to Sprunica and Helmsburg elementary schools.

Mainstream offers direct, wired connections in some areas, but how easily that connection can be made depends on the location, said fiber optic technician Will Anderson.

Mainstream also offers Wi-Fi-based Internet service in the Peoga, Bean Blossom, Helmsburg and Gnaw Bone areas, said Rodney Margison, general manager at Mainstream Fiber Networks.

However, the equipment is antiquated, and download speeds vary widely depending on how close a person is to an antenna, he said. As a result, Mainstream is not offering that service to new customers.

Matter of money

Though Mainstream would like to eventually upgrade its wireless service, there are no plans on the table right now, Margison said.The primary hurdles to getting faster Internet to rural populations are the additional costs created by terrain and sparse population, said Rob Ramsey, vice president of business development for Indiana Fiber Networks, a company that sells Internet service wholesale to other providers.In Gnaw Bone, Mainstream overcame some of that by adding an antenna that beams the Internet at near-fiber optic speeds to another antenna in Gnaw Bone. From there, Internet service can be further distributed to customers either wirelessly or through a hardline connection.

NewWave Regional General Manager Belinda Graham said NewWave looked at expanding its coverage in Brown County last year, but the numbers did not add up. It would cost more to run the lines than the company could make from selling service.

Even demonstrated interest may not be enough to convince a telecommunications company to run new lines, Graham said.

“I get petitions from communities all the time,” she said. “It really doesn’t have anything to do with the petitions. It all boils down to cost.”

However, if a group of people is willing to pay upfront for infrastructure costs, the company will work with them. In one recent case, nine homeowners came together to cover the cost of having service run to their neighborhood, she said.

Other companies contacted offered similar scenarios and a willingness to work with customers.

Another option to offset future costs is to pre-build infrastructure while other utility work is being done, Graham said.

For instance, if a trench is open for water or sewer work, it is possible to lay in conduit that can be used to run fiber optic line later without digging things back up, Graham said. The cost savings can be about $7 per foot, which adds up quickly.

However, Graham said when another utility offers to let them lay conduit in an open trench, they often want NewWave to pay for half of the trench. If there are no customers already waiting at the other end, that cost can’t be justified, she said.

Under development

Nashville earned a Broadband Ready Community designation from the state last summer, and Internet providers took immediate notice, said Town Manager/Economic Development Director Scott Rudd.He said several national carriers contacted the town. So far, that hasn’t led to any firm plans to expand service.But it’s possible that the town could pay for fiber optic to be brought to Town Hall, he said. That could benefit nearby businesses and residents by making it easier for them to connect.

Being named Broadband Ready demonstrates the community’s willingness to work with telecommunications companies and not create excessive barriers to development.

Currently, only the town has the designation; the county doesn’t. Brown County Redevelopment Commission President Dave Redding said he’s interested in it.

Redding said better Internet access is essential to attracting the kinds of businesses and talent the county needs to flourish.

When Phil Shively at Hills O’ Brown Realty talks to homebuyers, Internet service is one of the first things they ask about.

Managing Broker Tom Vornholt said Internet availability can be the difference between whether or not a house sells.

“We regularly have people approach us that want to work from home,” he said. “I tell them you can get broadband anywhere.”

At home, he has a satellite connection that fits his needs for $75 a month.

However, the tipping point for many homebuyers is not that they can’t get Internet, but how much they would have to pay for the connection they need.

Holding a set of outdated Internet coverage maps drawn before fiber optic lines connected the schools, Shively also talked about the need for more accurate maps.

Tom Reoch, Brown County geographic information systems coordinator, said he does not have the data he would need to add Internet coverage to the county’s GIS map.

The most recent information he has showing cellular coverage is almost 10 years old, and he said he doesn’t have any information on high-speed Internet availability.

Steps to take

At last month’s Nashville Redevelopment Commission meeting, members identified what they thought to be top needs in their three-year plan.Every category contained one common thread: high-speed Internet.Too often, those kinds of conversations go no further, said commission President Ric Fox.

In 2011, the Brown County Economic Development Commission paid $29,000 for a strategic plan by InfoComm Systems, said Vornholt, who was a member of the EDC at the time.

The plan outlined the county’s Internet needs and possible solutions.

Fox was a member of the EDC Internet task force which grew out of the strategic plan. The group stopped meeting a few years ago, Fox said, and he doesn’t know why.

He still thinks the report shows some promising ideas.

It outlined the pros and cons of the county building infrastructure and having a private entity run it, or running the Internet service itself, like any other standard utility.

On a countywide scale, the study also explored using water towers as broadcast points for wireless Internet.

Fox said high-speed Internet could cover the entire town for a few thousand dollars through point-to-point connections. That technology is already used to connect several businesses to Mainstream Fiber’s network, he said.

The same network could be used to offer free Wi-Fi to tourists, Fox said.

Even though the cost would be fairly low, how to pay for it could be an issue, he said.

“I think it would almost have to be like a water utility. Why couldn’t you have an Internet utility?” he said. “I just can’t figure out why we haven’t done it yet.”

How much Internet do you need?

The Federal Communications Commission defines “broadband Internet” as 25 mbps download speed with 3 mbps upload speed. That is 100 times faster than the speeds that were considered “broadband” about a decade ago.

The FCC offers some recommended minimum speeds for specific activities:

0.5 mbps

Email, basic web browsing, voice calls and streaming radio.

1 mbps

Interactive web pages, short videos, basic video conferencing and gaming console with Internet connection.

1.5 mbps

Streaming a full-length movie.

4 mbps

High-definition video conferencing, online gaming and high-definition video streaming.

The FCC recommends that households that will have multiple uses occurring at once look at higher speed connections.

1-2 mbps

Light use (email and web browsing without video) with three or fewer users or devices.

Moderate use (light use with one high-demand application such as streaming HD video) for two or fewer users or devices.

6-15 mbps

Light use with four users or devices.

Moderate use with three or fewer users or devices.

Multiple high-demand uses, such as online gaming while streaming HD video, from a single user or device.

15 mbps or higher

High-demand use from two or more users or devices.

What is 'high speed'?

In the past decade, the Federal Communication Commission’s definition of broadband Internet has increased nearly 100-fold, from a 256 kbps download speed to 25 mbps.

Rodney Margison, general manager at Mainstream Fiber Networks, said the speed of Mainstream’s entry-level fiber optic package is 10 mbps download and 2 mbps upload.

Smithville Fiber’s service plans start at 20 mbps, said Todd May, director of sales. The upload speed is as fast as the download speed, or “symmetrical.”

Indiana Fiber Networks service plans start at 10 mbps and service is symmetrical, said Rob Ramsey, vice president of business development. Ramsey said the lines they have running north from Nashville and south from Morgantown supply data connections to cellular towers.

NewWave provides cable TV, Internet and phone service around Brown County via fiber optics, said Regional General Manager Belinda Graham. However, Internet is delivered to most homes through coaxial cable — the traditional lines used for cable TV.

Even for NewWave’s cable-based customers, recent upgrades have made it possible to receive 100 mbps download speeds with 10 mbps upload speeds in some areas of Brown County, Graham said.

Smithville can offer service up to 10 gbps upload and download — 1,000 times the speed of a 10 mbps connection.

May said he has watched tests of their network where information packets have traversed the entire state faster than an eye blink. “It’s kind of spooky to see how fast it is,” he said.

Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.